The sudden North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean- controlled island
this week has returned the secretive “Democratic Peoples’ Republic” of North
Korea to world headlines. A casual observer might assume that the drama on the
Korean peninsula is of little relevance to the strategic process in the Middle
East. A casual observer would be wrong.
This latest evidence of the North
Korean regime’s unique approach to its relations with the rest of the world
matters a great deal to the Middle East, and particularly to Israel. This is
because Pyongyang is a key armorer and facilitator of the Iran-led “resistance
North Korea is a militarily-advanced state which has placed itself
outside of the boundaries and the rules of the international system.
fact that it is willing to provide weapons and knowledge to anyone that can pay
for it is a key element in facilitating the Iran-led axis’s challenge to order
in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, a UN report revealing North
Korean provision of nuclear and ballistic materials to Iran and Syria was
published. The report had been compiled and completed in May. China, which acts
as Pyongyang’s protector on the international stage, acted to prevent its
The report indicated that North Korea has
employed clandestine means, including the use of “multiple layers of
intermediaries, shell companies and financial institutions,” to “provide
missiles, components and technology to certain countries, including the Islamic
Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The report went on to
detail how North Korea uses a range of “masking techniques” to conceal
transactions, including containers with false declarations of contents and ships
with false routes and destinations. It contended that four specific cases “not
in compliance with the law, involving the export of arms” have surfaced since
the last round of sanctions was imposed on Pyongyang in June 2009.
report appeared also to confirm earlier allegations that the North Koreans were
responsible for building the Syrian plutonium reactor destroyed by IAF aircraft
at al-Kibar in September 2007.
While not specifically relating to this
facility, it states that North Korea has “provided assistance for a nuclear
program in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari
has said that Iran helped finance the participation of North Korean personnel in
the destroyed Syrian reactor.
Iranian scientists were also present at the
site, the goal of which was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Korean assistance also plays a vital role in the Iranian missile
Teheran’s Shihab missile project is a product of the
The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile series.
Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines from North Korea in
1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3.
The Shihab-3, which has
a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel within range.
officials were present at the testing of the advanced Taepodong- 2 missile in
North Korea in July 2006. This missile is the basis for the Iranian development
of the Shihab-6, which has not yet been tested.
intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic missile systems, thought to have a
range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.
One report has also suggested that Iran
and North Korea are jointly seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the
Nodong/Shihab-3, which would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.
addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the presence of North
Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in attempts to develop a
nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range ballistic missiles such as
the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was cited by Agence France
There have also been claims by serious researchers of a North
Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah underground tunnel network
which played a vital role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
A wealth of
evidence thus exists to indicate that Iran, Syria and almost certainly Hizbullah
are direct and substantial beneficiaries of North Korean weaponry and know-how.
North Korean involvement with Iran and its allies encompasses both the
conventional and nonconventional arenas.
The latest sensational
disclosure of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant will serve to further
concentrate minds regarding Pyongyang’s activities in the Middle East. While
North Korea was known to have enough weaponized plutonium to produce six atomic
bombs, this is the first evidence to have emerged of potential for a uranium-
based weapons program.
North Korea is obviously not motivated by any
ideological affinity with Iran and its allies. It might be argued that the
regime shares certain common points with Bashar Assad’s Syria.
countries are republican monarchies, family dictatorships ironically ruled in
the name of supposedly egalitarian ideologies.
But Pyongyang is not
seeking partners for the construction of socialism in the Middle East. It is
limping under UN sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program. So it is
seeking hard cash, fast and with no questions asked.
The events on the
border between the Koreas this week cast into bold relief just how bizarre and
unpredictable this regime is. The strategic game in the Middle East is much
bigger than North Korea, of course. But ending this regime’s ability to arm and
train the most destructive forces in the Middle East must form a key interim
goal in containing and rolling back the Iran-led “resistance axis” which is the
key challenge currently facing Western policy in the region.